The Bible for Photographers - Henri Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment

May 30, 2018

Regarded as a pioneer of candid and street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson left an indelible mark in the history of the medium. With an uncanny ability to capture life on the run, he helped to define a creative potential of modern photography.

The notion of the decisive moment, that he first introduced, influenced generations of photographers who later expanded, revised and challenged his concept.

To take photographs means to recognize - simultaneously and within a fraction of a second - both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.

“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment,” wrote the 17th-century cleric and memoirist Cardinal de Reitz, “and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.”

First published in 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment still carries the weight of its initial importance, sixty-six years on. Widely considered to be one of the most important photobooks of the twentieth century, it was described by Robert Capa as “a Bible for photographers.” Indeed, what this publication did above all was enshrine the term in the collective photographic consciousness.

The power and influence of this book are being explored in the current exhibition at the International Centre of Photography in New York. Titled Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment, it together vintage gelatin silver prints, first-edition publications, periodicals, and correspondence to shed new light on this pioneering photobook.

SPAIN. Andalucia. Seville. 1933.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 27–28, Seville, Spain, 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

The Decisive Moment

First proposed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the decisive moment is one of the most fascinating and highly debated concepts in the history of photography. It described the moment that occurs when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real-life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation.

Some proposed that this is the very essence of photography, to immortalize these fleeting moments in the flow of life with a camera. The photographer himself wrote:

To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.

For him, the composition of a photo is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye, but most importantly, it must have its own preexisting inevitability.

He would walk the streets eager to snap these scenes of convincing reality. The street photographer would linger for hours observing people, patiently awaiting that perfect photo, at the same time, always poised to make the snap decisions required to seize a given moment with his camera. Guided by this moment, he produced truly powerful images.

FRANCE. Paris. Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 39, Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Place de l'Europe, Paris, France, 1932. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

The Book and Its Impact

With an early interest in the photobook as a public vehicle for his work, Henri Cartier-Bresson looked to publish something of a monograph as early as 1933. Published in 1952, The Decisive Moment was his first real book.

After a discussion with Tériade in France about a French-American co-edition between Tériade and Simon and Schuster Publishing in 1952, the photographer had begun exploring his archives for the photographs that would go into the book, editing and sequencing them. He showed the dummy for the book to his friend Henri Matisse, who would design and paint the exquisite and notably non-photographic cover boards.

Comprised of 126 photographs of various people and scenes captured between 1932 and 1952 with his camera, the book is divided into two chronological and geographical sections: the first spans the years 1932 to 1947 and is made up of photographs taken in the West, while the second spans 1947 to 1952 and was shot mostly in the East. “In his early work, form often dominates content,” noted the photographer and theoretician Minor White, “the early pictures show a man more involved with his personal world than with the outer world [...] The later work shows a decided preoccupation with content, the human, social or political meaning – his outer world.”

The book was accompanied by Cartier-Bresson's personal introduction and adorned with richly textured photogravure prints, made by the best printers of the time, the Draeger brothers. In his New York Times review, Walker Evans wrote of the book's "breathtaking quality". When it was finally published in 1952 as The Decisive Moment in the United States and Images a la Sauvette (Images on the Run), it garnered high critical acclaim and solidified Cartier-Bresson as one of the great photographers of his time.

CHINA. Shanghai. December 1948-January 1949
Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 127–128, Last Days of The Kuomintang, Shanghai, China, December 1948–January 1949. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Examining the Influential Publication at ICP

A book that holds a special place in the history of photography is now explored in the exhibition at the International Center of Photography. The exhibition explores the lasting impact of the book celebrated as pioneering for its emphasis on the photo itself as a unique narrative form.

The exhibition details how the decisions made by the collaborators in this major project—including Henri Cartier-Bresson, French art publisher Tériade, American publisher Simon and Schuster, and Henri Matisse, who designed the book’s cover—have shaped our understanding of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs. Showcasing vintage gelatin silver prints, first-edition publications, periodicals, and correspondence, the exhibition brings new insights to this iconic work.

Boston, United States, 1947
Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 59–60, Boston, United States, 1947. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson Exhibition at ICP

This exhibition was organized by the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson. Together with concurring solo exhibitions of works by Elliott Erwitt and Rein Jelle Terpstra and a group show featuring Roni Horn, Wangechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas and more, it illustrates the breadth of ICP’s commitment to photography and visual culture, starting with the roots in ‘concerned photography’ and continuing through the evolving and ongoing conversation about the medium.

The exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment will be on view at the International Centre of Photography in New York until September 2nd, 2018.

Editors’ Tip: The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Originally published in 1952, this collection of Cartier-Bresson's best work from his early years was embellished with a collage cover by Henri Matisse. The book has since influenced generations of photographers, while its English title defined the notion of the famous peak in which all elements in the photographic frame accumulate to form the perfect image―not the moment of the height of the action, necessarily, but the formal, visual peak. This new publication―the first and only reprint since the original 1952 edition―is a meticulous facsimile of the original book that launched the artist to international fame, with an additional booklet on the history of The Decisive Moment by Centre Pompidou curator Clément Chéroux.

Featured image: Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 29–30, Spain and Spanish Morocco, 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos. All images courtesy of ICP.

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